The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Not just high schoolers anymore: My middle school students are feeling the pressure to succeed

I invited my mother to visit me at work at 10 p.m. one night. I remember silently thanking the wild-haired young lawyer we spotted sobbing in the break room next to a plate of leftover Chinese food. It was 1996, when students were flocking to law school in droves. I had deferred my own admission to gain some real world experience, and within months of working in a law firm, I was plotting my escape. I struggled to explain this to my parents, and the disheveled lawyer’s presence was concrete evidence that my decision to forego law school was justified, maybe even common sense.

As a recent college graduate, I was grateful to have a job (especially one with free moo shu), but I had ended up at that firm through process of elimination. I came of age in the “Free to Be You and Me” era, when we were urged to find our bliss and identify the color of our parachute. We weren’t too wedded to specifics or to planning because we were certain we could be anything we wanted. For me, that was overwhelming, akin to ordering from The Cheesecake Factory menu. I remember taking a career inventory in high school that suggested I would be a very content florist.

I lacked direction even as a college senior, leading to a fair amount of angst. (I was a creative writing major, which didn’t help.) In the absence of clarity, I applied for everything. My first interview was with an investment bank, where an analyst asked me about financial metrics. At the end, he asked me whether banking still interested me. (Had it ever?) During a consulting interview, I had to determine whether it would be a sound business decision to open an ice cream parlor in Boston. After sorting through quantitative variables, I grew bored and  told the interviewer I how like rocky road ice cream best when it is partially melted.

In hindsight, I know that my career exploration was completely normal. At the time, I plodded along, trying to figure out where my strengths and interests intersected. Along the way, I spent time in corporate cubicles, newsrooms and research firms, and I value all of these experiences.

Nearly 20 years later, I work as a counselor in a middle school in Bethesda, Md. My students’ daily experiences help them better understand what motivates and inspires them. In many respects, their early exploration is similar to my job quest, and this phase of their journey is as important.

But as a community, we are not making it easy for kids to take the risks that lead to self-discovery. The stress level among my 13 and 14-year-old students approximates what I saw several years ago when I counseled high school seniors. There is a sense that they need to follow a prescribed path, to perform well in every discipline. Parents and students fear that even middle school choices might have an impact on college admissions. As a result, when students earn a low grade or don’t like their math placement or get cut from a team, they can become unmoored. Intellectually, we know that no one needs to be good at everything. In practice, it can be hard to take the long view.

As parents and educators, we can give students permission to be brave explorers. We can emphasize that the highs and lows are both useful because they reveal what makes them tick — what sparks their intellectual curiosity and brings them joy. At the dinner table, we can ask them about their favorite (and most detested) subjects. We can gently inquire whether they actually like playing travel soccer four days a week. Maybe they have been thinking they might like to try cooking or painting. When they fail an exam, we can take a deep breath before reacting. We can commiserate if they share that they hate the subject or thought they had mastered the material. Above all, we can reassure them that this isn’t the end of the world and is just one more learning experience.

I empathize with parents who are trying to control as many variables as possible and become concerned with issues like course rigor or grades. It’s an understandable reaction to uncertainty, but unfortunately there are no clear guidelines. To be sure, the path after high school was a bit more predictable in the 1990s. The world now seems to be in constant flux, and that is unsettling.

The college admissions process also is notoriously unpredictable. I observed this when I was a high school counselor. The chess champion who performed gymnastics stunts on the back of moving animals? Denied. The child who published a cartoon history of Asia? Denied. The girl who worked as a researcher on a groundbreaking cancer study at the National Institutes of Health? Waitlisted. But here is the real takeaway: College is a further chance for exploration, it is not a destination. The world is chock full of varied career options, ones that are not limited by where one gets a degree.

By thinking holistically about our priorities for our children, we can give them a sense of control over their present and their future. If we can honor what makes them unique and help them develop self-awareness, we will lower their stress level. No one wants their child to end up miserable at work, weeping over a plate of cold moo shu. As I have discovered in my own life, it’s okay to experience detours and discomfort. Our children’s lives will be richer for it, and even the dips will provide helpful information as they find their way.

Phyllis L. Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counselor and school counselor in Bethesda.

Join On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and advice. You can sign up here for our e-newsletter and can find us at

You might also be interested in:

Want to keep your new middle-schooler out of trouble? Then let them take risks.

Want to help kids succeed in college? Let them take a gap year.

Help kids learn to do for themselves this school year

It’s college application time. Don’t assume everyone can or wants to go.